Mulched Paths – Oh Yes!

barefoot gardener

The first permaculture book I read was “The Permaculture Home Garden” by Linda Woodrow. Back in mumblemumble 1997. I read it from cover to cover one cold weekend in bed with my first baby, (those were the days). Usually I’m on a needs to know basis with non-fiction, but I gobbled it up. Linda made so much sense.

One thing I acted on immediately was sawdust paths. Revelation! And I’ve been doing them ever since. The effort required to make them is far outweighed by the benefits they bring.

Back then I loved those paths for the easy weeding (weeds through mulch are soft), and the lovely mud free working surface. Over time I’ve found more good things to honor about the humble sawdust paths. Now I consider them a part of my soil health regime.

A Border-less, Flexible Garden

Drone shot of edible backyard nz

There are no borders beneath the soil. No paths, no fences, no roads – all is one. Mulching the paths improves the soil beneath the paths, which in turn improves the beds. No boundaries remember.  What we do in one part impacts on the next. Jump in a virtual drone and pull back from your property – really gets you thinking doesn’t it!

When the soil in your paths is as nourished as the soil in your bed you’ve got flexibility, room to spread your wings should you need an extra 100mm extra to fit another row of crop in. Which is another good reason for no hard edges.

Black Gold

mulched path

And then there’s the mulch factor. Left to time and micro biology, your paths turn dark and load up on worms. Should you be low on mulch – the paths are your back up plan. Right there in your garden!, no shop required. Well rotten sawdust is a beautiful mulch. There is of course a trade off here – once removed, fresh sawdust is required.

Plan Your Paths

Paths make up a big chunk of your garden, yet they don’t usually factor into the planning process. They should! They make a big difference to the overall flow and your workload. Too wide and there’s more room for weeds and less for crops. Too narrow and your garden is no fun to work in. I like a central wheelbarrow path with narrow walking paths coming off it. It’s all the little time savers and benefits that add up to an easy to manage garden.

It’s all about the pro’s and con’s. And here they are for various path covering materials, starting with my least favourite, ending with most. Stones = weed growing heaven, not to mention horrible to barrow loads on and no flexibility. Grass = weed competition on four sides of your bed and too much mowing. Bare dirt = too much weeding for my liking. Sawdust = soil building, mulch making, easy weeding = heaven.

layout paths

There is one other path covering I use and that’s planks of wood in the greenhouse where growing space is at a premium and the beds change slightly each year depending on what crop is grown where. Even though its a hard surface – it still brings the worms up, but best of all stops compaction from foot traffic. 

The Simple How To’s

prep for sawdust

Lay cardboard on top of the grass, unless you have pernicious weeds in which case you need to grub them out first. Be pernickety with your cardboard laying – leave no gaps and go right to edges. I even go up the sides, the cardboard will break down after all. Cover deeply in sawdust.

fresh sawdust

Some of you will worry about the sawdust blowing away. This is a possibility if you live on the edge of the Cook Strait, but I’ve never had a problem here. The sawdust mats down beautifully. Sure it’s a bit fluffy when it goes on, but a bit of ironing with the wheelbarrow or stomping feet = sorted! And yes, it’ll attach to your boots until it settles in – nothing a stamp on the grass wont sort out.

In the first few years I top the sawdust up annually. Thereafter as required. If its been a particularly wet year I’ll need to, and if I’ve had a heap of open days (your feet pound it down!), I’ll need to.

Finding Sawdust

Find a local mill or hit up a landscape supply outlet. Sawdust direct from a mill is untreated – it comes from the unprocessed, raw log. It’s sawdust from a workshop you need to worry about.


  1. Thanks Kath! I too started with Linda Woodrow and I too have wood-mulched paths! Only way to go. And cardboard is great base. (Also loved by worms and alas wekas if not covered quickly…

  2. Hi Kath, this post is perfectly timed! Just creating new beds out the back in the grass, so currently have weedy grass between my beds. Wondering if I should turn the grass sods upside down before cardboard and woodchip for paths.. Or will it be ok to lay cardboard straight over the grass?
    P.S. dug up an old wrought iron Singer sewing machine up – bloody pleased I decided to double dig as is would have made a mess of my Forksta!

    • What an exciting find! So dedicated of you to double dig – it will turn that clay into beautiful friable gorgeousness toute de suite. Yes – just lay the card right on top of that grass.
      enjoy this beautiful day, Kath

  3. John Wilkinson says

    Hi Kath,

    Just wondering if Macrocarpa sawdust is suitable?
    I understand that it can be used untreated for fence posts and will last for yonks.
    Are there some tannins, or other substances, in it that stop it breaking down?

    As a young lad, back in the 50/60’s, I used to go up to the sawmill on the Brooklyn hill, in Wellington close to where the Wind Turbine now is, and gather up loads of well rotted sawdust. We would drive down Raroa Road in Highbury, look up and see the sawdust dump cascading down the hill. It was great for building up the clay soil in my Dad’s 200M2 potato patch.

    • What a great memory John. I grew up in Brooklyn too!
      Yes – mac sawdust is perfect – that’s what I use, it breaks down beautifully.

  4. Jen Pudney says

    The total best thing I love about my sawdust paths, is the feeling of walking on them in my bare feet! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Tracey MacDonald says

    Very timely post, I am in the process of removing the last of my lawn mainly made up of kikuyu grass. Was going for the no dig garden but find I can’t help myself and trying to remove those metres of root runs. Was going to use a smaller grade bark from the landscapers but may have to go the saw dust way.
    Have been laying newspaper, but is cardboard better?


    • Good idea with kikuyu or other persistent weeds to knock them back a bit. Mulch is so good here to soften the roots, making future weeding softer/ better. I use either cardboard or newspaper – whatever I have. Cardboard has extra legs though so that’ll always be my first pick.

    • Sue @ Murch says

      I have found cardboard better too. And a double layer is even better, helping to make sure there are no gaps for the weeds to poke their way up through. Agree that grubbing the kikuyu or couch grass first helps. I haven’t quite eliminated couch/twitch from my garden after 2 years but almost there!

      • Thanks for that Sue – yes to making sure of no gaps! A great bit of encouragement here – it seems like a never ending thing those runners grasses, but eventually after plenty of mulching and weeding them out when small, you do get on top of it. Mulch softens the runners making them peg down less, easier to weed. Improving the soil (mulching!), means the runner grass’ job is done – when it’s no longer needed it gradually fades away to minimal. There is hope ๐Ÿ™‚